Where Cobra Kai Fails the Martial Art (2022)

The staggering success of Netflix's Cobra Kai has brought renewed attention to the martial arts, especially karate. Anyone who bore witness to when The Karate Kid premiered in 1984 can recall the impact it had on the global popularization of martial arts. The film attracted a massive influx of new students and a tremendous boon to awareness, as well as to the economy. Cobra Kai has improved how the martial arts are depicted in the show with subtle clarifications that only the most discerning martial artists might appreciate.

But did you notice that in the Season 4 finale, one of the most critical scenes was spoiled by a subtle yet telling martial arts gaffe?

If you haven't watched the Season 4 finale of Cobra Kai, take note – THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Cobra Kai has crane kicked its way to become one of the most watched series on Netflix. If you haven't tuned in yet, it's a wonderful homage to the time-honored rivalry between Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) brought up to date. Cobra Kai takes place now, over thirty years after The Karate Kid trilogy of films. Daniel and Johnny are parents, and beyond coping with their own middle-aged issues, the next generation is rising. Their children engage issues of bullying, school fights, high school romance and of course, the way of karate.

It's a brilliant redux of The Karate Kid movies, laden with faithful Easter eggs that delight any fan of the franchise. For martial artists, Cobra Kai also makes a concerted effort to clarify and correct how the martial arts are represented. Despite its global popularity, the original movies were not outstanding examples of martial arts. Part of that was the charm – Daniel-san was supposed to be a beginner. However, the original trilogy only spans a little over a year of training and how good can you really get in under two years? For Daniel, it was good enough to face several life-or-death duels. If you've ever been to a real tournament, the bouts in the All Valley Karate Tournament are absurd. But such is the magic of the movies.

What Cobra Kai Gets Right

The original creator of The Karate Kid franchise, Robert Mark Kamen, based the story on his own life experiences. He was attacked by a gang in his youth, which inspired him to take up karate, but then found himself under an extremely overbearing militant sensei. He transferred to another sensei propounding Okinawan Goju-ryu karate. That sensei was a direct pupil of the Okinawan forefather Grandmaster Chojun Miyagi (see Chojun—A Novel by Goran Powell).

Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) is named in honor of Miyagi. Ever since The Karate Kid Part II where Daniel and Mr. Miyagi travel to Japan, the Okinawan roots of Miyagi-Do have been firmly established.

The biggest revelation of the series is that Cobra Kai Dojo does not teach karate, although keen martial arts fans knew this already. The original films were choreographed by Grandmaster Pat E. Johnson (who also played the referee at the notorious All Valley Karate Tournament). Johnson is a comrade of Chuck Norris, a veteran, and an exponent of Tang Soo Do. In the The Karate Kid Part III, Sensei Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) offers a fake apology to Mr. Miyagi from Cobra Kai's South Korean grandmaster. However, Silver, the newly returning villain in Season 4, never met Cobra Kai's grandmaster.

There have been other clues. In Season 1 of Cobra Kai, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) begins class by shouting "Jun be!" which means "get ready" in Korean.Most notably In Season 3, it was revealed that Silver and Kreese (Martin Kove) learned Tang Soo Do while serving in Vietnam from their Captain Turner (Terry Serpico), who learned it from a Korean master named Kim Sun-Yung. It's a clarification that mirrors history. Noted grandmasters like Johnson and Norris brought Tang Soo Do home to the U.S.A. after serving overseas, and they often labelled it 'karate' because that was the dominant term in American pop culture.

What Cobra Kai Gets Wrong

It's that final scene at the end of Season 4 that's troublesome (and if you haven't watched it yet, this is the last chance to bail out before the spoiler). When Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) reappears at Miyagi's grave, he utters one line – "Oss" – but that's wrong.

"You will never hear "Os" (respectively "Oss" or "Osu") in an Okinawan dojo," states Hermann Bayer, Ph.D., author of the new YMAA book Analysis of Genuine Karate: Misconceptions, Origins, Development, and True Purpose. "It is a Japanese term which is today used indiscriminately in martial arts in a variety of situations with a variety of meanings. Since most people using the term don't know its origin or meaning, it turned into an everyday phrase in many martial arts covering "hello", "yes", "I understand", "okay", "you need to train harder", "I agree", "continue" ... and so on and so forth.

"It seems that the term was used in the Japanese Imperial Navy as an acknowledgement and/or enforcement of an order, and it thus represents a masculine, militaristic, submissive, and group-oriented mindset (which actually contradicts the caring and easygoing disposition of Okinawan civilians, but which supports the militaristic disposition of Japanized karate training).There are some other theories about the term's origin, for instance that it is short for "Osu no Seishin"[押忍],a combination of "to push", and "to endure"/"to persevere". Other theories suggest that it is an abbreviation for either "good morning" (ohayo gozaimasu[お早うございます]), or for "onegaishimasu"[お願いします]which is a phrase used in martial arts etiquette to acknowledge mutual gratitude when training together.

"The common denominator in all these explanations is two-fold: it is a Japanese term, not an Okinawan one, based on Japanese kanji and language. Secondly, it is a rough, masculine expression which, when used improperly (e.g. towards higher ranking or towards older individuals) may be seen as patronizing, disrespectful, even offending.

"So, where does it leave us? First and foremost, if a sensei in a dojo uses or requests the term, a karateka should use it, period. Referring to Okinawan dojos, there you either say "Hai" (yes) or you say nothing at all, because in most cases no comment is needed anyway, and you simply train harder."

Despite this, one martial error does not forfeit all the positive representation that Cobra Kai has brought to the martial arts. "While there are many sources of concern to be found in the Cobra Kai dojo (I generally keep the beer out of meetings with my high school aged students!) there is much reflected there that occurs in the highest quality karate schools," says Bruce Costa, author of the new YMAA book Welcome To Karate: Unlocking the Wisdom of the Beginner's Mind. "Soon after Johnny opened the doors, he had nearly every human shape, size, color, and disposition represented in his class. Throughout my life, the opportunity to be with people from very different lives and together strip ourselves to a beginner's mind when training has been one of my greatest sources of reflection. Racism, classism, and other xenophobic tendencies find no place in the dojo. Proper karate pits the student against his or her own self.

"There are further examples. It is impossible to generate the kind of power karate offers and not contemplate the ethics of its use. Cobra Kai shows this internal struggle in every episode, even among its most deplorable characters. Similarly, it is impossible to train together intensely without forming strong relationships. In the show, even when those friendships are threatened, their karate-formed bond brings them back to one another."

It's true what they say – Cobra Kai never dies!

Cobra Kai is available on Netflix.

The above is an original article by Gene Ching.

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